Under This Roof, Barbara Kingsley’s drama of unexpected connections in the racially divided Cleveland of the late 1940s, gets its world premiere May 4-20 in a Minnesota production by Full Circle Theater Company as a presentation by Guthrie Theater in the Guthrie Dowling Studio in Minneapolis. The play draws on an incident in the life of the playwright’s late grandmother, placing her in the milieu of Cleveland’s African-American community. Kingsley was an actress for many years at Actors Theatre of St. Paul, the Guthrie and other Minneapolis/St. Paul theaters before moving to New York City.
Full Circle and the Guthrie characterize the four-character, two-act play this way: Under This Roof “takes place in the segregated black neighborhood of Central Cleveland, which Mamie and Raymond Warren call home. When Mamie desperately needs household help after her husband has a serious accident, she takes a friend’s advice and hires a down-on-her-luck woman named Bessie, whose arrival brings surprises and new challenges.”
Spoiler alert: visiting caregiver Bessie turns out to be white, which gooses the tension in the Warren household. As Bessie helps Raymond in his recovery, the idea of “disabled” appears in another character: Bessie has a personal connection to disability in her own family, due to a tragic incident.
Under This Roof “explores themes of mature love, family, disability and race on an ever-shifting axis with often-unexpected comic, painful and heartfelt results.”
The play was a semi-finalist in the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. For Under This Roof Kingsley was the recipient of a Minnesota State Art Board/National Endowment for the Arts Emerging Artist Grant.
Prejudices, perceptions and secrets surface in the play, which had earlier development by Penguin Rep in New York and in a workshop by Jungle Theater in Minnesota.
The first impulse behind creating the drama was a practical one, actress-playwright Kingsley told me. As a middle-aged white actress, Kingsley wanted to know if there were any plays in contemporary American stage literature — aside from working in a color-blind casting situation — that would allow her to work with African-American actors and directors in the theater community.
“It was about a deep need to work with my colleagues of color in Minneapolis — and not finding that avenue open,” Kingsley said. “So I created my own play. I asked, ‘What might a white woman’s relationship with a black family be in that time?’ An incident in my own family led me to the questions of what my grandmother’s life was like with children to care for and bills to pay, and how she might come into a community where there were black Americans.”
Kingsley traveled to Cleveland for a research trip to explore African-American history there. A Midwesterner originally from Chillicothe, IL, Kingsley wanted to set her play away from the dramatically well-trod black communities of Harlem, Pittsburgh and Chicago, so she chose Cleveland.
The cast of Under This Roof includes Brian A. Grandison as Raymond; Laura Esping as Bessie; Yolande Bruce as Mamie; and Nathan R. Stenberg as Mason. The production team includes director James A. Williams; assistant director Roxane Battle; dramaturg Stephanie Lein Walseth; disability consultant MacGregor Arney; sound designer Katharine Horowitz; lighting designer Tom Barrett; set/props designer Michael Burden; costume designer Amber Brown; stage manager Kenji Shoemaker.
“This is a love story,” director James Williams said in a production note. “It’s about mature love, marriage, romantic love and familial love.”
Barbara Kingsley is a veteran stage and screen actress, well-known in Minnesota as an Ivey Award-winning performer who created hundreds of characters for more than 40 years on Twin Cities’ stages. As a playwright, her works include I Am Proof of Me – A Final Visit with Emily Dickinson (recipient of the Minnesota Regional Arts Council Next Step Grant) and Living in the Blue Zone (winner of the 9Thirty Theatre Co. 2009 one-act playwriting competition and produced in the 2010 A Fresh Assortment/Earth Week, One-Act Festival). In 2011, Kingsley received one of three Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grants to conduct research for Under This Roof in Cleveland and obtain oral histories from people who lived in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood in the late 1940s. Under This Roof was selected as a 2015 semifinalist at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference. She is also co-author of two screenplays: “Henry Wind” and “Flourtown” (2008 Official Selection: Palms Springs Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, SSHF Film Festival and Flickerfest Intl. Film Festival). She is a member of The 72nd Street Gang Playwrights Collective in New York City and the Dramatists Guild. Kingsley also served as an adjunct faculty member in the University of Minnesota Dept. of Theatre and Dance (1998-2013). She recently appeared on episodes of “The Path” and “Jessica Jones.”
As a New York City-based actress and playwright, Kingsley is repped by Mary Harden of HCKR.
Full Circle was founded by Co-Artistic Directors Rick Shiomi and Martha B. Johnson and Core Artists James A. Williams, Stephanie Lein Walseth and Lara Trujillo. The mission of Full Circle is “to produce heartfelt groundbreaking theater that artfully addresses issues of diversity and social justice for 21st century audiences.”
The production is part of Guthrie Theater’s Level 9 initiative, which features “reduced ticket prices, dynamic community events [and] a fresh series of original plays.”